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Sorry, Barnum, You’re Wrong — There Is Such Thing As Bad Press.

Sorry, Barnum, you’re wrong — There is such thing as bad press.

Is There Really Such A Thing As Bad Press?

It was a Thursday, and my husband was being forced to read another one of my press releases (he’s a good sport) when he paused, looked up at me, and asked, “Is it true that there really is no such thing as bad press?”

*Quick historical context— ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’ is often associated with Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th-century American showman and circus owner. Barnum was a self-publicist of the first order and never missed an opportunity to present his wares to the public.*

Now, this isn’t some sort of breakthrough question. In fact, I get asked it all the time, and boy do I have an opinion on the matter. So, I turned to my fiancé and answered — “There is 100%, without a doubt, such a thing as bad press.”

To which he gave the rebuttal, “Okay, well the man sitting in our white house currently has loads of bad press, so it can’t be that harmful or that big of a deal right?” (Cheeky, that one.)

Alright, now I had to explain, ya know, to justify my statement. Because admittedly there are two sides to this argument—very much like “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” and if you have an opinion on the matter, you’re probably damn near convinced that you’re right.

As was, well am, I.

If this were a court case, I figure I would be sitting in the prosecution’s seat, trying to prove Barnum wrong. You all, meaning readers, currently, are sort of like my jury. Therefore, I will start by reviewing a well-known press scandal.

The Harvey Weinstein Scandal

When news broke on Thursday, October 5th, 2017, detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, it nearly broke the Internet. Here is a timeline of key events that followed, as reported by BBC:

  • It is announced that Harvey Weinstein has been sacked by the board of his company, with immediate effect.
  • Bafta says it is suspending Weinstein’s membership, with immediate effect.
  • Harvard University announces it is stripping Weinstein of the Du Bois medal it gave him in 2014 for his contributions to African-American culture.
  • The British Film Institute announces it is withdrawing the BFI Fellowship it awarded Weinstein in 2002.
  • The Producers Guild of America bans Weinstein for life. It says the “unprecedented” step reflects the seriousness with which it regards reports of his “reprehensible” conduct”.
  • After a four-month investigation, New York state prosecutors announce they have filed a lawsuit against the Weinstein Company on the basis the studio failed to protect employees from his alleged harassment and abuse.

Now I’m not arguing that this press scandal was all bad. It did bring a terrible man and industry problem into the spotlight, and hopefully has or will issue at least some sort of feeling of closure or vindication for the victims. It also brought women across the globe together and instituted the undoubtedly powerful #MeToo social movement.

However, what I am saying, is that if you’re sitting in Harvey Weinstein’s shoes (or his publicists) if there is such thing as bad press, this is it, and it is the holy grail.

To decide if press is good or bad you must decide what your desired outcome is. If you look at the goal or ROI as being to simply “spread brand awareness” or rack up as many impressions as possible, well then, likely the worse the press the better. But if your goal is to achieve a specific outcome that is ultimately affected by public opinion and perception, then yes, my friends, bad press does exist. Here’s another example that started on the good ol’ Twitter-sphere in my early years of PR.

My company was set to launch a new hunting videogame on July 20, 2012. Some of you may immediately know the significance of this date. For those of you who don’t, which by the way no harm foul, I will remind you. On July 20, 2012, around 12:30 a.m. in the morning, a mass shooting occurred inside a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. My sincere condolences to all those affected by this tragedy. My company, of course, postponed the launch due to obvious reasons.

However, when I hopped onto Twitter to get more live updates on the catastrophe, I noticed an unlikely source was becoming viral. “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress,” declared a tweet from the account belonging to Celeb Boutique, ending with an emoticon wink and a link to a product page. While the retailer issued apologies in the aftermath for its ignorance, there still were those who didn’t find the apologies good enough. And yep, that tweet made headlines:

So, unless the boutique’s intended outcome of the tweet was to issue responses as follows, I’d vote it bad press.

“I’ll ensure that I NEVER buy a product from you, and anyone I know never does either, after that tweet,”—@Spikeophant

“you should’ve found out why it was trending. I & everyone who sees this will never buy from this company, EVER” — Sara-Marissa Baker

An Anonymous-affiliated account, @YourAnonNews, weighed in as well, tweeting, “Dear Internet: Let’s shut these insensitive f*ckers down.”

Closing Statement

So, let’s circle back, and take this argument home. It’s rather quite simple in the end. Whether press can be deemed “good” or “bad” is subjective to the affected. While a singular piece of press can have both positive and negative repercussions, that variable in itself solidifies the fact that yes, there is 100%, without a doubt, such a thing as bad press.

Case closed.

Sorry, Barnum.

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